Day M83: How To Write A Blockbuster – Part I

19.12.11:

I’ve been spending my days and nights (mostly nights) on board the good ship Southern Pearl practicing the ancient art of writing. I’ve been writing my blog (of course) which will one day become my book (it’s now pushing 750,000 words, so it’ll have to be edited down somewhat – James Joyce’s Ulysses is only 250,000 words). I’ve been writing Programme Bibles for TV shows you may never see and writing film scripts the names of which you may never see in backlit marquees. I don’t mind, I just enjoy writing. And then inflicting said writing on my family and friends.

Writing, especially fiction writing, appeals to my love of two things: puzzles and logistics. Since I was a kid I’ve loved puzzles. It’ll come as no great shock to anyone that my favourite video games when I was growing up were the point n’ click adventures of Golden-Era LucasArts.

When writing a screenplay, the puzzle revolves around how you get your characters from the set-up to the dénouement without invalidating the title. This is were logistics come in, and why writing fiction seems to me very closely related with what I’m doing with The Odyssey Expedition: I’ve got to think of clever, speedy, interesting, but overall logical ways of getting from point A to point B to point C and so on.

For most of my stories I have a series of hooks, which, while they are awesome ideas for individual scenes, have to lead naturally from one to the other. You give a lousy reason for going from big scene to the next, you find yourself in the territory of Episode 1, Transformers 2, Pirates of the Caribbean 3 or Indy 4: you just end up pissing off the audience.

Figuring out these links, for me, the most fun part of writing. They might come in the middle of the night or sitting on the toilet or while riding on the top of a lorry through the badlands of Northern Kenya. The thing is that once you make the connection, once you run through all the usual pitfalls in your head and it still makes sense, it just seems so bloody obvious in hindsight. Of course that’s how they escape! Of course that’s what makes the plane crash! Of course that’s why the baddie left that clue! D’oh!

It’s like a whodunit in which only you can work out the solution.

Sadly, Hollywood seems stuck in an ultra-conservative glut at the moment, with all the remakes, reboots, sequels, adaptations floating around I’m amazed when we get a single original concept for a film squeezing through each year. The only big one from last year was Inception.

Some of the greatest films of all time: Citizen Kane, Casablanca, North By Northwest, All About Eve, The Apartment, Midnight Cowboy, Star Wars, Alien, Indiana Jones, The Terminator, Back to the Future, Pulp Fiction, The Matrix, Memento and Crank were NOT adapted from something else, they were original ideas specifically created for a specific medium: film. Original ideas seem in short supply in Hollywood today, which is why American Television is running rings around the silver screen.

So I reckon there’s no better time for you to have a crack at writing a blockbuster. I’m sure you’ve got ideas floating around your noggin and you’ve got time in your life to read my ramblings so you can’t be that busy! There’s no reason why, with a bit of help, you can’t knock out something resembling a Hollywood film from back when they were good (ie. the Twentieth Century).

The thing about film scripts, and why writing them is a much better idea than writing a book (if you’re a lazy procrastinating sod like me), is that you don’t ever really sell a script, you only option it. If it’s a smokin’ hot script, you could get, say $200,000 just for the option rights. But here’s the best bit: if the studio doesn’t make the film within two years (say) the option rights revert back to you.

So then you can option the same script again for another $200,000 to another studio. There are millionaires living in Hollywood who have had no script of theirs ever made into a movie. Seriously.

Because I’m such a great chum, here are some tips and strategy that I’ve gleaned from reading various books on scriptwriting, attending scriptwriting courses and watching thousands of films. You’d pay $500 to go to a seminar to be told exactly what I’m going to tell you now, for free. Think of it as a Christmas present for sticking with The Odyssey Expedition blog over all these years.

If I manage to inspire you to write a film that makes a billion at the box office, don’t forget to mention me in your Oscar acceptance speech.

Day M84: How To Write A Blockbuster – Part II

20.12.11:

The Premise

First up, work out the basic premise in your head. Don’t worry about making it all make sense just yet, just worry about the main features of the story. At the very least you should have a strong set-up, a strong dénouement and a good title. Unfortunately for you, the best movie titles of all time, Ice Cold In Alex, There Will Be Blood and Snakes on a Plane have already been taken, so you’ll just have to think of another one.

But in the States they called it 'Desert Attack!'. Groan.

At this point, if all you can think of is a single scene, you should really consider writing a short movie instead.

The Audience

This is important, possibly the most important thing about scriptwriting.

You need three things to tell a story: a story, a storyteller and an audience. Otherwise you’re just talking to the wall. It’s interesting that British people take so long to figure out you need an audience: Americans get onto this fact a lot quicker.

Before you write a single word, ask yourself “who will be the audience?”

If the answer is “art-house patrons” then congratulations! You’ve narrowed down your target market to less than 1% of the cinema-going public.

The British/Australian/Canadian/New Zealand film industries struggle enough, they don’t need even more crap clogging up the system and scaring off investors. Be realistic: it costs a MILLION DOLLARS to make a ‘cheap’ movie. For your idea to become a reality someone will have to feed, clothe and house dozens, maybe even hundreds of people for up to six months… AND THEN have to re-coup the all the money or you’ll never work in this town again etc.

As each person in the UK goes to the cinema (on average) once a year, your film about a woman who lives in a council estate in Salford, gets beaten by her husband and then kills herself is going to present something of a problem. Your magnum opus will be up against the likes of Spielberg, Clooney and Stratham.

If your idea is as niche as a novelty sex toy that only works if you’ve walked on the moon, you’d be MUCH better off writing for TV. You’ll not need to obsess over cutting a profit, you’ll reach a wider audience than you ever would via the cinema, you’ll reach the right demographic and hell, Stephen Poliakoff, Matthew Graham and Steven Moffat are three of my favourite writers. When it comes to capturing close, intimate, character-driven drama, TV is a far superior medium than the cinema.

Here’s a quick test you can run in your head: is this storyline something I’m likely to see in a soap opera? If the answer is yes, to paraphrase Layer Cake: you’re in the wrong f—ing business, son. If the answer is no, great! Welcome onboard, let’s write a blockbuster movie.

For your blockbuster to bust blocks you’re going to have to write to your audience. Regular cinema goers are heavily weighted towards 13 to 35 year old males. You’ll have much more luck selling your script and becoming an overnight millionaire if you target that key demographic. Failing that, if your audience is ‘children, but parents will be entertained as well’, this is also acceptable, especially if you’re writing for Pixar.

Just Start Writing

Okay, now, before you do anything else: START WRITING.

This is the hardest bit of the whole process. Just write, write anything, just fill the pages with words.

This is a bit like when you start to learn to drive and the instructor says ‘just drive’ and directs you onto the main road. Nerve-wracking I’m sure, but the kick-the-baby-out-the-nest-so-it-flies method is pretty much tried and tested around the animal kingdom, so of course it applies to driving lessons and creative writing as well.

Correct Formatting

An incorrectly formatted script will not be read by anyone but your mum.

In order get the formatting right, download a copy of Final Draft. If you fancy having a go on your own, the only font you’re allowed to use is Courier 12pt.

Your script should start with the words ‘FADE IN:’ tabbed over to the far right. Then you’ve got the scene heading, always written something like this:

INT. MORGAN’S HOUSE – DAY
EXT. MORGAN’S HOUSE – NIGHT
I/E. MORGAN’S CAR – THE NEXT DAY

You must put whether the scene is INT. (interior) or EXT. (exterior) or I/E. (both) and make it clear whether it is day or night (a throwback to the days when each of these set-ups would require different film stocks). You can also get away with using CONTINUOUS, MOMENTS LATER, MORNING or EVENING.

Then you’ve got the ‘blackstuff’: the action. If you want to conjure up a fantastically detailed world, write a book. The blackstuff should be kept to a minimum, as in Shakespeare. Apparently, the scripted directions for the 20 minute long flying fight scenes in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon consisted of two words: “They Fight”. Details are up to the director, not you.

When a NEW CHARACTER is introduced his or her or its name is written in CAPITALS. Ditto for SOUND EFFECTS.

When people speak the correct format is:

GRAHAM
This is the correct format.
Final Draft will do this for you automatically. It’s clever like that. It’ll also allow you to add (V.O) after the character name for Voice Over, (O.S) for a voice Off Scene, such as on the other end of a telephone line and (O.C) for Off Camera, for somebody in the scene whose face you maybe don’t want the audience to see.

You can also add a ‘wryly’, but I’d suggest you keep these to a bare minimum. A wryly is a scripted direction on how to say something.

RIPLEY
We’re all going to die.

HUDSON
(sarcastically) <– this is a ‘wryly’
Well that’s just jolly spiffing isn’t it? Man.

Bit pointless? Yesh Mish Moneypenny, I wouldn’t bother unless absolutely necessary, give the actors and director some credit. Each page of your script will equate to about 1 minute of screen time, so you should aim for about 100 pages. You have to write “FADE OUT.” justified to the right of the page at the end. That’s it, really.

So that’s all your major formatting points done. Keep your first draft diabolically simple. Write the script in chronological order and keep the dialogue plain and functional. You’ll be mucking about with it later.

If you get stuck on how to bridge the gap from one scene to the next, just skip the gap for now. Just get down everything that’s in your head on paper.

Your First Draft

What you’ll end up with will be 100-odd pages of something so shockingly bad you wouldn’t want it to use it as a doorstop lest you offended the door. This is your first draft. DON’T WORRY, they’re always bloody dreadful. Nobody in their right mind would turn the first draft of a script into a film.

I said "in their right mind", didn't I?

Okay, now the real work begins. You’ve got your malformed, illogical, boring lump of clay. Now I want you to mould it into something beautiful.

Day M85: How To Write A Blockbuster – Part III

21.12.11:

The Re-writes Begin…

There are certain rules you have to stick to in order to write a successful movie script. If you would prefer to ignore these rules, write a novel instead. The rules of movie making are pretty much set in stone and you’d have to be either very brave or very stupid to break them.

Reservoir Dogs follows the rules. Casablanca follows the rules. The Godfather follows the rules. The Shawshank Redemption, Being John Malkovich, The Big Lebowski, Little Miss Sunshine, The Matrix, Gran Turino, Platoon, Raging Bull, Inception, Annie Hall, The Wizard of Oz… no matter how clever you think your favourite movie is, chances are, if it turned a profit at the box office it follows the rules.

You want to see a film STICKS IT TO THE MAN and THROWS THE RULE BOOK OUT THE WINDOW…?

You don't. You really don't.

Okay. Every film ever made tells the same story, which is… (drum roll please…)

Somebody Wants Something,

But They’re Having Trouble Getting It.

Identify who the ‘Somebody’ is, what exactly is the ‘Something’ they want and what exactly the ‘Trouble’ is lurking in their way, and hell, your script might be actually getting somewhere.

The story of this ‘Somebody’ will have Three Acts. Preferably no more, and definitely no less. If you must, you can dick around with the chronology (Memento, Pulp Fiction) later. Preferably in the edit suite.

The Three Acts

Act One

Act One is your set up. You must introduce your Somebody: your protagonist. Spell out what he or she wants and give us some idea of how he or she intends to get it. We should meet (or at least be aware of) the antagonist within the first few pages. Act One should cover the first 30 pages of the script.

If the protagonist isn’t revealed to the audience before the end of Act One, then you’re in trouble. You can, if you’re VERY lucky, manage to switch protagonists (Marion Crane/Norman Bates in Psycho), but this rarely happens, because it rarely works.

But the important thing is you MUST have a protagonist or the story will not work. Star Wars Episode I lacks a protagonist, which is just one of the many reasons why it sucks so bad. Some ensemble films (Magnolia, Traffic, Crash) have more than one protagonist, but the rules are the same: identify what their problem is, and spell out how they intend to overcome it. Ensemble films are notoriously tricky to get right, so I wouldn’t bother: in any case, they rarely set the Box Office ablaze.

Act Two

Act Two is the journey. The protagonist MUST make a conscious decision to embark on this journey themselves (they then take the audience with them: if they’re tricked or simply following somebody else journey, they’re not the protagonist!). We have to see the protagonist develop and face challenges issued by the antagonist in getting what he or she wants. By midway through the movie, the protagonist should be flying high. Then it all goes horribly wrong.

By the end of Act Two, all should be lost. Your protagonist must seem as far from his or her goal as they could possibly possibly be. This is the turning point of the film, not just in terms of plot, but also in terms of character development. It’s now that the protagonist realises, like the Rolling Stones, they may not always get what they want, but if they try sometimes, they might get what they need. Act Two should cover around 60 pages.

Act Three

By Act Three the protagonist has changed as a result of the journey. This gives them the tools, confidence, wisdom, whatever, to overcome the antagonist. It can consist of between 10 and 30 pages, but don’t overdo it, it’ll get boring very fast.

By the way, a tragedy (such as Being John Malkovich, Amadeus or Macbeth) runs along the same route except the protagonist gets what he or she wants too early on… when this happens, they become the antagonist. They’ll learn their lesson too late to do anything about it and lose everything by the end of the story. For a masterclass in this kind of character arc, see Walter Whyte in Breaking Bad.

For an example of exactly how not to do it, see Star Wars Episode III.

Archetypes

In a two-hour movie, especially if it’s the kind of action-orientated flick that might actually stand a chance of making millions, your protagonist will invariably be an archetype. Pretty much every great character in cinema history from Rick Blaine to Charles Foster Kane to Vito Corleone to Andy Dufresne has been a archetype. There’s nothing wrong with this: it’s still perfectly possible to get your subtle nuances across.

Save The Cat

The next thing you need to do is “save the cat”. Unless you’re writing the script for a film in which we all already know the protagonist (James Bond or Indiana Jones), we don’t know this guy, why the hell should we care what he wants? We have to like him. This is pretty easy to do, you just need a scene in Act One in which they (perhaps unexpectedly) do something heroic: ie, save a cat rather than eat one for lunch. It’s not like cinema audiences don’t want to manipulated.

Main Character vs. Central Character

Every film (with the exception of ensemble pics) has a main character and a central character. They can be the same person (Neo in The Matrix, Popeye Doyle in The French Connection, Forrest Gump in, er, Forrest Gump). But if you want to be clever you can make them separate people (or entities).

Consider: Mozart is the central character in Amadeus, the frikkin’ movie is named after him. However, we watch events unfold through the eyes of somebody else: in this case the jealous, vengeful Salieri. The same thing happens in King Kong, Ferris Bueller, Immortal Beloved and Atonement.

Generally speaking, the central character is what drives the plot forwards, but we see the story through the eyes of the main character. The major difference (and why this technique is used so often in historical movies) is that the main character can (and does) change during the course of the film, the central character can’t. Kong will be Kong until the day he is shot off the top of the Empire State Building, but without Kong nothing in that movie could possibly happen. Ferris Bueller isn’t the main character of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, it’s Cameron that changes: he’s the one who trashes his dad’s car and says he’s happy to face up to the consequences. The film is actually about Cameron.

Even a film where it looks cut and dry, like The Shawshank Redemption, pulls this trick on you. At first glance, Andy is the main character, but think about it: he never changes. Red changes (think of the final parole hearing scene), which makes him the main character — we also see the events through his eyes, not Andy’s. This is one of the reasons Morgan Freeman was nominated for Best Actor, not Best Supporting Actor.

Sticking with Stephen King’s Different Seasons for the moment, in the story The Body (which became the film Stand By Me) Chris Chambers (River Phoenix in the film) was the main character, which worked fine in the book, but when translated onto the big screen it just didn’t work. Director Rob Reiner decided to pull a switcheroo and made Gordie the main character instead, and went on to create one of the most-loved movies of all time. Again, we see the film through Gordie’s eyes and Gordie is the character who changes at the end, not Chris.

As in Stand By Me, you’ll often have a group going on a journey together, but notice there’s still only one main character: Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, Mikey in The Goonies etc.

It’s the comforting lie that Hollywood has been (very successfully) peddling for over a century: the fallacy that people can change.

But if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Day M86: How To Write A Blockbuster – Part IV

22.12.11:

Antagonists

This is the easy bit. Your antagonist could be a rival news anchor, a monster from the black lagoon or the protagonist’s own fear of commitment (although if your script is based around fear of commitment, I hate you). It’s just some thing that keeps throwing obstacles in the way of our hero.

Wants vs. Needs

Before you embark on the journey you must spell out very clearly is what your main characters heart’s desire is. It might be to go into space, get with the girl or win the world tiddlywinks championship. But that alone does not a good film make. What you can play with, and what you can be more subtle about, is what the character really NEEDS. Self confidence, trust, education, friends, the monster to stop eating his friends etc.

The most blatant example of the wants vs. needs fandango is The Wizard of Oz, in which nobody gets what they want off the wizard: they just needed somebody to tell them that they had whatever it is they wanted all along.

Often you’ll see a film in which a character doesn’t want to change until they are shown a world beyond what they’re aware of (‘the sleeper awakes’), but others are quite happy to spell out straight away that the protagonist is not happy with his or her lot and wishes for change. It’s not until later in the story that the real need of the protagonist is revealed: think of Charles Foster Kane’s last word.

An Exception…

Horror films are an exception to the rule, generally the only ‘change’ the main character needs is for things to go back to normal. This is why it’s so hard to keep a protagonist alive for more than one horror film – once they achieve the confidence or nouce they need to defeat the zombie hoards at the end of the first movie, their character arc has nowhere left to go.

Pacing

Now you’ve got to kick your story into some semblance of order based on the structure I’ve just described. It sounds pretty restrictive, but usually you’ll find the bits of your script that work follow the rules, the bits that don’t work remind you of Star Wars Episode I.

Now have a look at the pacing of the film. It doesn’t have to be exact, but you want your protagonist to begin the journey around page 30. Take the blue pill, Neo. By page 60, they should be flying high, doing really well for themselves on their quest. They’ve probably met a girl they quite like and a comedy sidekick who makes sarcastic comments.

Pages 60-90 are when everything goes wrong (the end of Act Two is often known as ‘the mentor’s graveyard’ as it’s a good place to dispense with the mentor character as he or she will be useless in Act Three anyway).

Page 90 should be the lowest point (for the main character). If you’re writing a standard story, this should be the ‘all is lost’ moment. However, if you’re writing a tragedy, it’ll be the highest point for the main character. But tragedies don’t make money, so DON’T WRITE ONE.

For the record, films like Gladiator, 300 or Pan’s Labyrinth in which the protagonist dies at the end are NOT tragedies: they achieved their goal. They don’t need to survive to win. A tragedy is only when our protagonist loses, and loses big.

Pages 90-120 are when you really need to be wrapping things up. This is nothing to do with short attention spans and more to do with pacing. You gear the audience up for the dénouement and then keep them hanging on for another hour, they’ll hate you like I hate George Lucas for making Star Wars Episode I.

Also, if the links between your scenes seem inexplicable and arbitrary, “now let’s go to the pyramids!”, you’ll lose your audience. An audience confused is not an audience entertained, and suspension of disbelief only works if you rigidly adhere to the rules that your own universe creates.

Dialogue

Right, finally, the least important thing: dialogue. By the time your film gets made, every line will be changed, switched or rewritten by the powers that be anyway so it’s no big sweat.

That being said, silent protagonists are a tough sell, and while actions speak louder than words in real life, it’s a lot easier in the world of movies to make your characters sympathetic by having them express their desires through words rather than the medium of dance.

You should also ensure that when you read an individual line, you can (usually) work out which of your characters said it. Base each of your character’s reactions, speech patterns and slang on people you know, it’ll make it easier for you to differentiate. In general keep exposition to a bare minimum: nobody likes a lecture. If you’ve got something complicated to explain, try hiding it in a car-chase. Or use The West Wing’s “walk with me” shtick.

Finished?

Now go back over the script and take out the first and last lines of each scene. Repeat until you cannot remove any more dialogue and have each scene still make sense.

Don’t waste words, you haven’t got the luxury. Everything said should move the plot forward or tell us something about your characters. In each scene, the action should arrive late and get out early.

Now…

Print out hard copies (a waste of paper I know, but it’s MUCH easier to get people to read, even if they do own a frikkin’ iPad) and distribute to your friends, family, mortal enemies, people in the street etc. Give them a questionnaire to fill out asking them mainly about three things: places they got bored, places they got confused and character actions they didn’t understand (or didn’t believe). Don’t just ask them if they think it’s any good… everyone invariably say yes as they won’t want to offend your precious sensibilities.

With all this feedback buzzing around your cranium, go to bed. Put a pad and a pen with a light on it on the side. Lie down, close your eyes and run through the script in your head like you’re watching the film. You’ll think of new connections, you’ll think of different ways of doing stuff, you’ll find characters that you can dump, scenes you can do without and ways of simply doing it better.

Then rewrite, rewrite and rewrite.

When you’ve absolutely, totally, utterly and completely finished rewriting, rewrite it again.

Now set it in space, add some more robots/zombies/dinosaurs and you’re done.

Good luck.